Blunt sides with cities on school funds

Legislators look to higher gambling and cigarette taxes to pay for formula costs.
Wednesday, May 4, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:00 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 6, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — The stalled proposal to change the formula used to distribute state money to schools got a big push from the governor Tuesday, but the force of the effort to attract reluctant suburban lawmakers made some supporters uneasy.

Gov. Matt Blunt threw his weight behind a proposal that would cost almost $1 billion over seven years. Blunt, who had limited his comments to support for reshaping the formula, sided with suburban and urban legislators in a fight over how to account for wage differences across the state.

“We need to create a new formula in this building so we don’t allow unelected judges to impose a formula on our state and so that we don’t permit unelected judges to impose a tax increase,” Blunt said.

The Special House Committee on Education Funding spent much of last week discussing the plan but defeated a proposal to send it to the House floor on Thursday. Chairman Brian Baker, R-Belton, said the committee will reconsider the formula today.

“If I didn’t believe we could get this out, I wouldn’t do it,” he said.

Baker’s optimism aside, the formula’s additional cost and its prolonged implementation time have drawn concerns from Republicans who voted for an earlier version.

Rep. Ed Robb, R-Columbia, whose campaign focused largely on school funding ideas that, for the most part, have been cast aside, questioned the wisdom of a formula that calls for annual budget increases exceeding $130 million for each of the next seven years.

“We need to make this something people can come out and accept, and at the same time make sure it’s affordable,” he said. “And the second part of it is just as important, if not more so, than the first part.”

Freshman Rep. Charlie Denison, R-Springfield, voted against the formula in committee last week but said additional review and a talk with Blunt over the weekend alleviated his concerns.

With estimated costs ballooning, the need to find money to fund the formula is perhaps the

biggest threat to a solution before the end of next week.

Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, has said he would support eliminating casino loss limits and increasing gross receipts taxes on casinos. That, combined with additional tax revenue from economic growth, would fund the formula, he said.

Denison said that in addition to Shields’ plan, he would support a higher tax on cigarettes.

“Although I’m a Republican and am not supposed to say this, I think we better go look at other options and that we better do it now,” he said.

Blunt and many Republican lawmakers, however, oppose those ideas.

“We can fund the formula without repealing the loss limit, without imposing an additional tax on gambling,” Blunt said.

Nonetheless, the prospect of one budget item absorbing a significant chunk of new revenue prompted some Republican committee members to shift in favor of Shields’ plan.

Should the legislature fail to pass a new formula by its May 13 adjournment, Blunt said he would call a special session. Baker wants to avoid that.

“It’s the governor’s prerogative to call for a special session, but we don’t want a special session; my wife doesn’t want a special session,” he said.

Blunt’s plan would also spread over three years a multiplier intended to account for wage differences across the state. The multiplier was the subject of a battle that prompted five Republicans to defect in committee last week and stall the bill.

The House version would divide the state into regions, calculate the average wage in each and appropriate additional money to school districts in areas with higher wages than the state average. The difference would be limited to 10 percent. Blunt, the Senate and suburban Republicans on the House committee support a cap of 15 percent.

Blunt’s plan addresses many of the concerns of suburban and urban legislators. But support among rural legislators waned.

Rep. Maynard Wallace, R-Thornfield, said that while a $15 million grant program for districts with fewer than 350 students would help, there would be little money for districts ineligible for grants but competing with suburban districts boosted by the wage multiplier.

“The biggest problem is that it’s obviously a step toward inequity in the formula,” Wallace said.

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